American officials continue to officially reject the idea of partition for Iraq: most recently the state department’s Iraq co-ordinator, David Satterfield, who told a Senate hearing on Wednesday that “It is wholly unacceptable to this administration.”

But an even better candidate for partition was in the news this week, with the official results of the presidential run-off election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

As expected, incumbent Joseph Kabila was declared the winner with 58% of the vote against his challenger, vice-president Jean-Pierre Bemba, with 42%. In the first round Kabila, son of the victor in the 1990s civil war, had received 44% to Bemba’s 20%.

The decisive election result masks a deep geographical division: the west of the country, nearer the coast and the capital, Kinshasa, voted predominantly for Bemba. The east, ethnically and linguistically distinct, overwhelmingly supported Kabila. (Adam Carr’s Psephos has a breakdown.) Bemba, not surprisingly, has rejected the results, leading to fears of a resumption of civil war.

DR Congo (once called Zaire, and to be distinguished from the smaller Republic of the Congo across the river) is the third-largest country in Africa, extraordinarily rich in mineral wealth but plagued by violence, poverty and misgovernment. Put simply, there is no earthly reason why it should be a single country.

Its artificiality is even more pronounced than Iraq’s. The ethnic groups are much more geographically distinct, and its boundaries are entirely colonial: the British in Iraq were at least filling a genuine vacuum caused by the collapse of the Ottoman empire, but Congo was wantonly carved up in the nineteenth century by Belgium’s king Leopold II — under the horrific conditions depicted in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

But Africa’s rulers, who disagree on so much else, generally form a united front against any revision of the boundaries left to them by the colonial powers. Once the process starts, no-one really knows where it might stop.

Peter Fray

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